Qualitative Methods Training in Cambodia

The Project
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Qualitative methods training session at Prek Leap National School of Agriculture.

One of my favourite aspects of the Cambodian research project is our collaboration with agricultural students at Prek Leap National School of Agriculture. They are an invaluable part of the project, because of their central role in the ethnographic data collection. Our students are going to live in the targeted villages for more than a month, staying with farmers and contributing to their households. We hope that this integration into village life will help the project better understand the decision making that goes on in villages and amongst farming families during the current period of rapid agrarian change.

As part of the project, we agreed to provide training for the students, whose interests are mainly in the agricultural sciences, but who want to better understand decision making and governance. I was fortunate to get this opportunity, and spent several days with individuals from the school, explaining, discussing, and practicing semi-structured interviews, participant observation, photographic methods, focus groups, and ethnography. In addition to the methods, we debated research ethics, research design, research questions, data collection and analysis, intensive and extensive approaches, and structure and agency. It was a busy, but really rewarding, experience for me; for the students, I think it was a little overwhelming, but they will soon go into the field for a practice period (and we’ll follow-up afterwards), which should help them make sense of all the topics.

The Challenge
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Focus group discussion
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Example of (very common) knowledge transfer (and assumed knowledge deficit?)

One of the big challenges and questions that we hope to explore is the tendency in Cambodia to attempt to ‘inform’ farmers about the practices of farming. This is not simply over-confident scientists neglecting to partner with locals, as many farmers have little connection to the land or history of farming due to the long period of war and socialist engineering. Most famers acquired their land in post-war efforts to create a lasting peace, which means that people are (somewhat) detached from the lands they rely upon. This means that many practices are unsuited or mis-applied by standard practices; whether this is because of ignorance or because of cultural, political, or economic reasons is one of the questions our work will attempt to answer.

The Hope

There is no doubt that sustainability and development are at odds in Cambodia. There is likely no answer or solution, but there appear to be countless opportunities to help. The people are incredibly generous with their thoughts, and in many cases seek input or thoughts. Whether they need foreign expertise and technologies is probably too simple a way of looking at the issues, but what is certain is that there is a very resilient people that should become partners with the plethora of interventions currently underway in Cambodia. Hopefully we can help with this.

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Recent clearing of jungle for plantations (typically rubber)

New Project: The implementation of water productivity: identifying barriers and solutions

The proposed project involves three stages: first, interviews will be conducted with key actors within the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) with the aim of ascertaining perceptions related to the BOM’s emerging responsibilities; second, a knowledge exchange activity will be run at the BOM with the aim of developing collaborative partnerships while refining the findings; and third, the outcomes of the interviews and knowledge exchange will be circulated to BOM participants and to external actors and organizations identified by the BOM as being involved or important.

The analysis of transitions requires a methodology able to access, differentiate, and interrogate the values and the perceptions of experienced and expert actors. Given the ‘wicked’ nature of the transition (i.e. tension between end-user needs and water optimization), actors within the BOM represent a critical source of knowledge, particularly with regard to the informal, institutional, and personal factors that will influence the success of the BOM’s efforts. It might be assumed that the BOM will adapt to suit the emerging context, but the degree of success will be shaped by the workings of the organization and the expertise of its members, as much as by external forces. An analysis of barriers as foreseen by BOM actors, then, will complement concurrent efforts to understand water optimization in Australia and the legislative context in which the BOM transition is occurring.

The individuals who will inform these analyses are BOM officials and employees. As a result of a growing partnership between the BOM and Carlton Connect, key informants will be identified and interviewed. The proposed facilitation project will analyse three aspects of the transition as perceived by central actors: 1) how the BOM can simultaneously become ‘end-user focused’ while supporting water optimization, 2) the potential barriers to its success, and 3) the possible adjustments needed to address or avoid those barriers. Together, the findings will enable outcomes that identify the range of forces shaping the transition, potential barriers, and solutions as perceived by those most experienced and grounded in the BOM. These outcomes will contribute directly to the BOM’s activities, with ramifications for the organization’s relationship with end-users as well as its ability to contribute to a more sustainable and resilient society.

It’s a big team, but very much looking to collaborate.

Prof. Lee Godden (Melbourne Law School), Dr. Margaret Ayer (Department of Agriculture and Food Systems), Dr. Ruth Nettle (Department of Agriculture and Food Systems), Dr. Matthew Kearnes (Environmental Humanities, UNSW), Prof Andrew Western (Infrastructure Engineering), Prof Abbas Rajabifard (Infrastructure Engineering), Dr Mohsen Kalantari Soltanieh (Infrastructure Engineering), Dr. Dominic Skinner (Infrastructure Engineering) Dr. Deirdre Wilcock (CCDW, Victoria University), and A/Prof Michael Stewardson (Infrastructure Engineering).